By Annie Linskey and Jonathan Allen
May 10 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama is openly joking about Hillary Clinton succeeding him, House Republicans are agitating over Benghazi and Monica Lewinsky’s back.
In other words, 2016 is on.
The next U.S. presidential election has already begun, though the Iowa caucuses are a year and a half away. Looking past congressional races in November, the political world in Washington has fixed its gaze on the White House contest in a way that it hadn’t fully done before this week.
“2016 fever is finally starting to impact D.C.,” said Jaime Harrison, chairman of South Carolina’s Democratic Party. He said his state is engaged in the race to succeed Obama, hosting a long list of presidential hopefuls including Vice President Joe Biden and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
The clearest target this week was Clinton -- an undeclared candidate who nonetheless is emerging as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Republicans used growing U.S. interest in the fate of more than 200 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria to develop a fresh line of attack against Clinton, taking her to task for failing to designate the group responsible -- Boko Haram -- as a terrorist organization while she was secretary of state.
Coupled with that criticism, U.S. House lawmakers voted May 8 to create a select committee to investigate the 2012 attacks that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya -- an episode that Clinton has described as the “biggest regret” of her tenure as the top U.S. diplomat.
“It is kind of spring training for 2016,” said Ryan Williams, a veteran Republican operative with Washington-based FP1 Strategies. “There is a sense among Republicans that we need to try out what works against her and what doesn’t and soften up her approval numbers going in to 2016.”
Adding to the fire is this month’s edition of Vanity Fair, which features an essay by Lewinsky, whose affair with President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment in 1998.
For more than a decade, the presidential paramour had kept silent about the scandal. In the essay, Lewinsky takes aim at Hillary Clinton for “lashing out” at her. “I find her impulse to blame the Woman -- not only me, but herself -- troubling,” Lewinsky wrote.
Not all of the Hillary Clinton news was negative. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, announced that he’s joining the Ready for Hillary super-political action committee, a campaign organization-in-waiting for the former first lady. Emanuel’s also hosting a fundraiser for her. Ticket amount: $20.16.
Jockeying is starting to occur on the Republican side, too. That party’s 2012 standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, declared yesterday that he won’t be a presidential candidate this cycle and announced his support for raising the federal minimum wage.
“I part company with many of the conservatives in my party,” Romney said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. “I think we ought to raise it. Our party is all about more jobs and better pay.”
The move gives prospective Republican candidates room to get behind the popular issue of increasing workers’ wages that Democrats are now using out on the hustings.
Meanwhile, Republican National Committee members met in Memphis for three days of talks about the nuts-and-bolts of 2016. They agreed to hold their convention earlier in the year to boost their nominee’s chances, discussed finding a host city for the event and unveiled software designed to help campaigns identify supporters for get-out-the-vote efforts.
Even as the focus on 2016 began to sharpen, Democrats and Republicans nonetheless are keeping a close eye on the November midterm election that will determine control of Congress.
Obama this week packed five fundraisers into a three-day trip to California. He’s seeking to bolster the bottom lines of Democratic Party-linked groups while trying to rally interest in the congressional races, when Democrats are more like to stay home than in presidential years.
“I’ve got to make sure we have a Democratic Senate, and I want a Democratic House of Representatives in Washington,” Obama told an audience at a May 7 event that included singer-actress Barbra Streisand. “My main message to you is feel a sense of urgency about this election.”
The Republicans had good news, too. Establishment favorite Thom Tillis trounced a Tea Party-backed candidate in a primary contest for the party’s U.S. Senate nomination in North Carolina. The outcome avoided a costly runoff and gives Republicans their best shot at ousting Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan -- one of six races they need to win to take control of the Senate.
“There’s still an intense focus on the mid-terms, in terms of resources, organizing and message,” said Kevin Madden, a strategist with JDA Frontline who worked on Romney’s 2012 campaign.
As for 2016, the increased emphasis by Republicans on issues that have the potential to cause trouble for Clinton during a presidential run underscores their obsession with her, said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist at Washington-based QGA Public Affairs.
“Republicans are playing the long ball, believing it is inevitable and laying the groundwork for attacks to come,” Manley said.
Even Obama has acknowledged the role Clinton will play in the contest to succeed him. At the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington on May 3, he cited her in a joke about how conservatives -- including the Fox News network - - will have to stop taking swings at his African heritage.
“Let’s face it, Fox, you’ll miss me when I’m gone,” Obama said. “It will be harder to convince the American people that Hillary was born in Kenya.”